Demystifying developmental disabilities: Say no to the “R word”, understanding intellectual disability

What is the R word

Some words can succinctly describe a situation or condition, while others can slice through a family’s soul when it’s used to describe a loved one. As our understanding of disabilities has evolved, how we describe conditions has changed over the years as well. Terms and labels we have used in the past have not only fallen out of favor but are now considered derogatory and offensive. One such term, retarded, that has been retired as a technical term and replaced with intellectual disability. The R-word has (for some reason) become a popular term to use casually to describe an act or thought considered stupid. Without exception, the reaction of our community to using the R-word in any capacity conjures painful feelings of judgement, intolerance, and discrimination. It should be retired completely.

Intellectual disability

A better descriptor of limitations in adaptive behavior and intellectual functioning is intellectual disability. It’s important to note that the impact on practical and social skills occurs before the age of 18, but typically symptoms are apparent when a child enters school around age 5 or 6. Although IQ scores aren’t the only measure used to assess intellectual functioning, generally speaking an IQ score of 70 or below can indicate problem solving, reasoning, and learning impairment. Additionally, difficulty with self-direction, interpersonal skills, healthcare, and safety are also symptoms of an intellectual disability.

Other factors

According to the American Association on Intellectual Developmental Disabilities there are many factors to consider when determining intellectual disability

The AAIDD stresses that additional factors must be taken into account, such as the community environment typical of the individual’s peers and culture. Professionals should also consider linguistic diversity and cultural differences in the way people communicate, move, and behave.

Finally, assessments must also assume that limitations in individuals often coexist with strengths, and that a person’s level of life functioning will improve if appropriate personalized supports are provided over a sustained period.

Only on the basis of such many-sided evaluations can professionals determine whether an individual has intellectual disability and tailor individualized support plans (AAIDD, 2019)

What to do

If you think your child has an intellectual disability it is important to speak with your primary care physician and work with your school district to perform testing and develop an appropriate individualized education plan.

If you have been diagnosed, it does not mean that you cannot live your best life although you may need support in some areas. You are your own best advocate. Speak with your family and local/state disabilities agency about your treatment and support plan.

CLICK HERE to learn more about intellectual disability from Center for Disease Control and Prevention.


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External Resources

American Association for Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

Mayo Clinic

Genetics Home Reference – NIH

Support program: Autism Sibling Support Initiative

Support program: Sibling Support Project

Maryland Developmental Disabilities Council

Maryland Early Intervention and Special Education Services

Administration for Community Living

Pathfinders for Autism

Disability Scoop

Maryland Preschool Special Education

Maryland Department of Education Division of Early Childhood